I have always been fascinated by the romance of picaresque novels and faraway illusions of Wordsworth, trudging through Windermere’s meadows, before clogging parchments with poems about daffodils we canonised so long ago. It was their pastoral road trips and the idea of getting back to nature that thrills me. So, when I flew to New York over summer, I convinced my cousins that we had to leave Manhattan’s confines and get to America’s boondocks that held forth the promise of a creative cornucopia.
We pulled in to our holiday home in Phoenicia, upstate New York around 11 at night, engulfed in darkness, air thick with the chirping of crickets. Our headlights revealed a deer and her fawn in the woodlands behind us. But it turns out the admonitory signs about bears and other wildlife were unwarranted – for our brief stay at least – because the skittish animals managed to evade us entirely after that. Exploring the house, I made my way across creaking floorboards and all-American wallpaper to the back porch that opened into the woods and made a quick about turn. The roar of gushing water was hypnotic, but I was too urban to go any further at that late hour and crawled into my sleeping bag instead.
What sounded like the hellish Styx at night turned out only to be Esopus Creek by the crack of dawn. Pen and paper in hand, I sat on the wicker chair composing nonsense haikus and eventually ventured out towards the water. Teetering across mossy stones, I decided to plant myself on a rock and let fresh air and creativity swathe me. Instead, I was immediately shrouded by mosquitoes, midges and other winged creatures who met their doom at my hands. Realising this communion with nature wasn’t panning out quite as I had imagined, my cousins and I decided to trace the woods around the creek and eventually found people tubing down the Esopus’ rivulets which soon turned rather turgid.
Locals there pointed us to some excellent trails in the Catskills and Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, a Tibetan-Buddhist monastery housed in the heart of the Catskill Mountains above hippy Woodstock, which was only a few kilometres away. Realising rather quickly that we were all fairly out of shape, we took on the mid-level Tramper Trail. Using fallen branches as support, we often had to get down on all fours to climb over rocks still moist with what we hoped was only morning dew. The flagged path took us an exhausting 300 feet up and offered us Edenic views of Panther Mountain and surrounding hilltops. We had barely started documenting our conquest when it began to pour. The rain-choked clouds pretty much cut off sunlight and whatever little did filter into our stratosphere was summarily blocked out by the carpet of leaves formed by the trees towering over us.
Ravenous, shivering and ashamedly a little frightened, we clambered down knowing the monastery or the beatniks at Woodstock would have to treat us better. Nature, I learned, despite my delusions, isn’t necessarily benevolent, but the rusticity had me feeling more at peace with myself and the world and did in fact give me a new lease on creativity.
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